By all accounts, James Mercer and Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) work well together. Functioning as Broken Bells, their self-titled debut record that came out last year was a pretty solid piece of 60s-tinged pop with a modern twist. The assumption at the time was that Broken Bells would be only a temporary project, lasting only an album or two. After all, Danger Mouse wasn’t one to settle down so easy, given his habit of bouncing from project to project in addition to functioning as producer for a number of different artists. While there’s no indication that Danger Mouse’s team-up with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley is officially dead, it hasn’t shown any signs of life the last couple years. Factor in Cee-Lo climbing the ladder of success a second time but on his own courtesy of “Fuck You”, and he probably doesn’t feel the need to keep that thing going. On the other side of this puzzle you have James Mercer, frontman for The Shins but in a tight spot of his own after firing his bandmates though replacing them with new guys. Despite talk of a new Shins record on the way back in 2009, nothing has materialized yet and last year Mercer said he wasn’t sure when he’d return to that band except that it wouldn’t be before mid-2011. We’ll see if that happens eventually, but for now we might as well deal with the reality of Broken Bells and their new/old EP “Meyrin Fields”.
The four songs and just under 12 minutes of music on “Meyrin Fields” are made up of a b-side and a couple outtakes from the same sessions that contributed to last year’s debut. The title track first appeared as paired with “The Ghost Inside” single, and it’s remarkably kinetic, particularly for Broken Bells. Eletronic squelches squirm about as the main source of melody as a menacing bass line runs underneath and matches wits with the equally dark lyrics. It makes sense as to why the song didn’t fit on the original record, but has enough deevelopment and smart structure to make for another single or even build an entire EP around. The dark energy holds steadfast on “Windows”, and thanks to a number of blips and bleeps there’s a certain urgency that only makes the song more compelling. The increased reliance on electric guitar also is just a little different from the Broken Bells norm, which tends to be organ or keyboard-based more often than not, with only little splashes of ferocity. Those keyboard and organ elements are what “An Easy Life” mostly uses, in tandem naturally with other electronic elements and beats. There’s a reggae-like bounce that the track cruises along to, and while it is just fine, there’s nothing much to make the song stand out or leave any sort of lasting impression on you. They can’t all be winners. Closing track “Heartless Empire” is a big winner on this EP though, creating a unique pastiche of grinding shoegaze guitars and drifting synth pop. It’s actually the best mixture of the two distinct styles that Mercer and Burton bring to this band, even moreso than much of what was on that first full length.
Where the “Meyrin Fields” EP missteps is really in its conception. That’s not to call it a completely useless exercise, but rather as a cohesive set of songs it doesn’t work in the least. Taken individually, close to everything has its merits and comes across as worthwhile. There’s just too much disparity in the sonic makeup of these tracks to call it a whole piece. Similarly though, there’s no place for these songs on that self-titled full length either, so in trying to create some sort of stopgap or just to get all the material out there for consumption, the purpose is served. Still, you can’t help but think that besides “Meyrin Fields” the song, if they’d just dished one more out as a b-side (say…”An Easy Life”) to a single, then a track like “Heartless Empire” could have earned its own separate 7″ single with “Windows” as its b-side. That would have been a more economical and perhaps financially beneficial move to make. Equally rewarding might have been saving these songs for a rainy day and seeing if any of them could fit into the context of a new Broken Bells full length. Assuming there will be a second Broken Bells album, of course. Oh well, what’s done is done, and the “Meyrin Fields” EP does a solid job of showing there’s more range to this band than what most of us first thought. It’s enough to give you hope – that maybe this is a project that deserves to exist well beyond what almost seemed destined to be a one-off collaboration.